The fear of swine flu is much higher in Asia than in the United States. Even on the flight over, I noted many Asian travelers and several flight attendants wearing microfiltration masks, On my arrival into Hong Kong, I had to fill out a health form noting if I had any of the symptoms, a cough, a headache, a fever. The attendant scanned my head with some sort of thermal imaging device that looked like a handheld barcode scanner.
In elevators throughout Hong Kong, elevator car button panels were covered with saran wrap and/or marked with signs indicating how often the panels were disinfected, the lowest frequency I saw being every two hours. One night, I went with my hosts Jae and Esther to the Kowloon side of the island for dinner at a restaurant called Hutong, and before we were allowed into the elevator up, we had to pass another thermal imaging checkpoint.
Given Hong Kong's urban density and the sheer number of its people who cross paths each day on subways, on streets, and through one of its many retail centers, it makes some sense that they'd take H1N1 more seriously than we do on this side of the Atlantic. Still, the heightened paranoia was such that I felt apprehensive any time I had to so much as sneeze or blow my nose in a public place.
What's more, many in Asia view Americans as irresponsible for traveling abroad as possible carriers of H1N1. Jae and Esther took me to get a foot massage after a long day on our feet sightseeing, and my masseuse, realizing I spoke Mandarin, struck up a coversation with me. Though I felt more inclined to dive into an English-language celebrity gossip magazine I'd found on the table next to me, it felt rude not to indulge someone who had to sit there kneading my sweaty feet.
She asked where I was from, and when I told her, she immediately noted, "Ah, that's wear the swine flu comes from." But she named it in Cantonese so at first I didn't know what she was saying. It wasn't until I heard a snippet that sounded like "H1" that I realized what she was referring to. She asked if I knew anyone who had swine flu or had died from it, and I told her that I did not. I tried to explain that it wasn't really as bad an epidemic as the news had made it out to be, but she may have interpreted that as one more sign of how irresponsible Americans were for treating something so serious with such casual disregard.
The effect of the swine flu scare in Asia much worse on my friend Mike, though, who, on a flight to China, sat a row ahead of someone who had swine flu. As soon as they tracked Mike down, he was put into quarantine, and thus began an ordeal that he, for our entertainment benefit, chronicled in a series of fantastic blog entries that made him somewhat of a press celebrity once the local bureau chiefs picked up on them. He received a link from James Farrows of The Atlantic Monthly and did an interview with the LA Times.
- Welcome to the Hotel Quarantine
- Life in the Big House
- The Seven People You'll Meet in Hotel Quarantine
- 3 Down 2 to Go